Though Bryce and Aaron Dessner grew up in Ohio, over the past decade the twin brothers have become synonymous with Brooklyn, NY’s high-art indie rock scene. As the guitarists in the increasingly popular band The National, the brothers have played some of the country’s most prestigious rooms, including the revitalized Brooklyn Academy of Music and Radio City Music Hall. While working on the new National album in Brooklyn, the Dessners used their downtime to give back to their community by putting together a series of collaboration-heavy performances. Earlier this year the brothers hosted the Dark Was the Night event at Radio City Music Hall and this week the Dessners premiere a new song-cycle as part of B.A.M.’s Next Wave series. A collaboration with visual artist Matthew Ritchie, the multi-media piece is part song, part film and part visual art. It also somehow manages to tie in such divergent themes as Mayan mythology, baseball and the birth of mankind. Here Bryce Dessner explains how the project came about.
The Long Count isn’t exactly a play or a traditional concert. How would you describe the work?
You can kind of whittle it down to essentially a music and film collaboration. There’s a 70-minute composed piece of music with a stage set and all this stuff onstage, and we have a 12-person ensemble. We also have four singers: Kim and Kelley Deal, Matt Beringer from our band The National and Shara Worden who sings with My Brightest Diamond. So it is a big collaborative project. The artist Matthew Ritchie has created some visual elements. There’s this massive mirror floor in the shape of a baseball diamond that’s really cool, and then there’s some sculptural element on stage that we actually sit in. But the main visual element is this 70-minute film that he made in accompaniment to the songs. Mostly what people will be experiencing is music and film, so there is really no theater or opera. It is going to be more of a multi-media song cycle, I guess.
What inspired you to start work on the song cycle?
Well, the subject matter really came about after B.A.M. asked me to work on something for their Next Wave Festival. They host this festival every fall where they commission a new work and there is really nothing like it. When I met with them I was obviously best known for playing in a rock band and not the type of rock band that’s a “sit down” group either. We are always a little wary playing with the band in a really formal atmosphere, but at the same time I grew up playing classical music, so I also live in that world. When they asked me to do something I wanted to figure out a way to create something unique because you can’t sit 3,000 people down for 70 minutes and just make them listen to us play an instrumental piece in this huge opera house. I guess the challenge was figuring out a way to tell some kind of a story, which was something they were specific about when they asked us to create this piece. Primarily the stuff I’ve done outside of the band has been instrumental, so it was definitely a challenge.
When did your brother get involved with the project?
I always wanted to make it a collaboration with my brother. He primarily just plays with The National, and he has less of a background doing all the classical stuff. The National is working on a record, and we did the Dark Was the Night show at Radio City Music Hall last spring and we both thought, “Do we really need to be doing this right now?” It was a huge undertaking to pull off something like this, in a way, much, much bigger than making an album. If you’re making a 40-minute rock record there is a format for the project. But, with The Long Count, it was so wide open and undefined. You have to be as detailed as making an album but it is just that much bigger in terms of the size. So the narrative stuff came up really as a vehicle for the collaboration in terms of like allowing my brother and I and the artists to find the story we were gonna focus on.
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